4.30.2008

China, Capitalism & the Olympics: My White House Daymare

by Robin Forman

I went to sit in the park for my lunch recently. And by park I mean the patch of green and benches called Lafayette Park that’s just in front of the White House.

I sat with my iPod and listened to the band Goldfinger whine about capitalism as I watched fat tourists and skinny eighth graders clamber up in droves to the White House fence.

Then it all started clambering up on me.

It’s coming up on the one year anniversary since I was birthed from the soft womb that is college into this hell that is the real world.

And it has happened.

I’ve lost my idealistic youthful hope for the world.

I once thought I could change the world. But I sat in the park watching those eighth graders awash with jealousy that they all probably still had hope. Even the goth kids who hate the world believe they will rise above the petty middle and high school worlds and change themselves and the world at large.

And then my eyes focused on a group of businessmen in black suits and subdued colored button downs standing in the grass. It made me think of the U.S. law firm (Morrison & Foerster) that represents China in its preparations for the Olympics. I asked a few weeks ago why China got the Olympics…it was all about money and capitalism. Who cares about their atrocious environmental and human rights violations? No ifs, ands or buts — it's just about a different kind of green.

I watched a particular group of school children with an average age of about 11. There were about 35 or 40 of them and they had been given balls to play with. They had broken off into small groups of three or five to play.

I watched one, clearly physically handicapped, girl limp from group to group, one gimp hand folded at her side, one holding a red kick ball. Every group rejected her. Even the one group of girls without a ball to play with.

I wanted to reach out to her and tell her it would get better…that someday, in the not so distant future, things would be better for her. But they won’t. In fact, it’s only going to get harder for her. When she hits adulthood there will be a myriad of jobs she won’t be able to even consider because employers will undoubtedly look at her physical disability, no matter the law. In China, that girl wouldn’t stand a chance. They probably would have killed her at birth.

And it all went down with the White House as the backdrop.

(Political graphic from StrangePolitics, a website that offers copyright-free political material.)





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Music Review: The Roots' Rising Down

by Jared McCoy
Special to iVoryTowerz

After the commercial failure of The Tipping Point, The Roots have moved more toward their original sound on their new release Rising Down, reminiscent of Things Fall Apart and Illadelph Half-Life. Or at least that’s what most reviewers would have fans believe since The Roots released Game Theory. This is a deceptive observation because it seems to imply that The Roots have simplified their songwriting somehow and devolved.

I can’t help but laugh a little to myself when people talk about how “dark” The Roots' newer albums sound. This is amusing mostly because the comment sounds like it seems to be describing race more than music. But it’s also strange because I would think The Roots newer albums would seem comparatively bright compared to the rock these commentators have just crawled out from under. Yes, of course, Rising Down sounds dark: The Roots have sounded “dark” (minor key, aeolian, using the Phrygian mode, what have you) since the day they banded together. But what exactly does "dark" mean? Does this buzzword really tell an interested reader anything new about the way The Roots sound? Of course not.

Like Game Theory, this new album demonstrates what I like to think of as the tasteful use of atmospheric samples and pads. What I mean by this is that behind the tracks and below the beats there are musical ideas that are rather dark and mysterious. These ideas seem to capture some psychological state of discord that’s hard to break down in words. Combined with The Roots’ heavy use of vocal soul, the overall texture seems to evoke something inexplicable and ephemeral in very much the same way Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew works within the genre of jazz. Perhaps this is a bad analogy because The Roots really aren’t that strung out. The jazzy textures of Rising Down really work more as a counterpoint to the direction and organization of the lyrical and rhythmic elements of the music.

Black Thought’s* flow seems to mature more and more every album. When I first heard him rap I couldn’t help but equate his intellectual monosyllabic cadences and refined tempo to Nas (full name: Nasir Jones) in his Illmatic days. I still think that Black Thought is unique in his ability to cultivate rhymes. However, these two rappers are strikingly similar when we start to break down the prosodic trends and stylings that comprise their flow. But I fear I must save my comparison of rap to poetry for another post.

Rising Down manages to balance commercially accessible hooks and artistic integrity better than some of The Roots' earlier albums. This is clear on songs like “I Can’t Help It,” which fuses an incredibly dry acoustic rhythm section with jazz influenced synthesizer flourishes over a catchy hook. “Get Busy” is a real attitude driven banger with a heavy synth foundation. I still don’t know what to make of the song “Birthday Girl” because it seems to stick out like a sore thumb against the other tracks. As a closing recommendation, definitely listen to to the title track of Rising Down, because it does something very interesting instrumentally with the crunchy drum hits, deep synth bass and atmospheric guitar.

*Black Thought's real name is Tariq Luqmaan Trotter.

(Photo of The Roots by Aaron Matthews of Ottawa, Canada via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License. The Roots continue their North American tour this Friday, May 2, at the Beale Street Music Festival in Memphis. To see the R-rated video for The Roots' "Get Busy," please check below.)










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4.29.2008

Guatemala's President Colom Genuflects in D.C.

by Rick Rockwell

Guatemala’s new president, Alvaro Colom came to Washington, D.C. this week to make the obligatory rounds after his inauguration in January. And he seemed as underwhelmed by his trip as he was soft spoken.

Let’s face it, these days a president from Central America comes to the U.S. less to meet with the lame duck president than to speak to exile communities responsible for sending remittances back home. And often remittances are the top way for Central American countries to earn foreign hard currency. The truth: Central America exports labor by exporting its people. (The United Nations says Guatemalans in the U.S. sent home $3.4 billion in 2006, accounting for about ten percent of Guatemala’s gross domestic product.)

So perhaps more important than Colom’s visit to the White House on Monday was his meeting with hundreds of Guatemalan emigrants over the weekend. Those people want Colom to press President George W. Bush and Congress on immigration reform, so he dutifully trudged around town shaking hands and doing just that.

Politicians everywhere seem to understand their bread is buttered with political donations, even if those donors are in Washington, or Miami, or Dallas, and that politician resides in Guatemala City.

At a session with members of the media, academics, and policy analysts before his meeting with Bush, Colom spoke with little enthusiasm about his mission. “Because of the electoral cycle, it’s not the best climate,” Colom noted, “but we should deal with immigration.”

Colom also promised to push forward on what is called the Merida Initiative, yet another attempt by Guatemala to recharge its troops in the War on Drugs to battle the various drug cartels that use the country as a trans-shipment point to the U.S. This is at least the fourth such Guatemalan initiative during the past three Guatemalan presidencies, and what is evident by the need for the Merida Initiative is the others all failed. (Please see: "Guatemala Surrenders in the War on Drugs," for more.)

Discussing the drug war and immigration reform were the two key areas Colom underlined in his pre-Oval Office session and indeed he and Bush stressed both. Bush promised support for the Merida Initiative and he promised to look into ways to extend special status to Guatemalan immigrants so they can attain temporary work permits quicker and easier. Of course, all the smiles and handshaking was a success for Colom, although it likely won’t gain him much from the lame duck president. The headlines are enough to tell Colom’s constituents here and back home what they want to hear.

He has dutifully genuflected and done his job.

The only item to get a rise out of Guatemala’s new president was a question about how he would reinforce human rights and bring generals and former presidents to justice for their misdeeds during the country’s bloody civil war. Spanish courts are moving forward in attempts to prosecute these former Guatemalan strongmen much as Spain moved to make Chile’s Augusto Pinochet answerable for his crimes against humanity.

Knocked off his moderate message at his pre-Oval Office session with the media, Colom related how friends and family had been forced into exile during Guatemala’s war that stretched from the 1960s into the 1990s. He also spoke passionately about people close to him who were killed during the conflict. “Our responsibility is to seek justice,” Colom said. “We must construct a system to seek justice.”

But although those were fiery words, and the only ones seemingly from the left during Colom’s stay, they neither promised to back the Spanish human rights process, nor to press for anything other than judicial reform inside Guatemala. And those were Colom’s final comments as his session was immediately cut short at the mention of human rights violations.

Colom may be a president from the left, the first in too long for Guatemala (the first in more than half a century, actually), but he is taking his speaking cues from the right-wingers who preceded him. And his agenda with the U.S. remains the same as his predecessors too: immigration and drugs.

However, until Guatemala fixes its long-simmering human rights issues, it’s other pressing problems, inextricably linked as they are to human rights, won’t be going away anytime soon.

(The photo shows Guatemala's President Alvaro Colom meeting with President George Bush in the Oval Office. This is an official White House photo by Chris Greenberg and it is in the public domain.)










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4.28.2008

North Korea & Syria: Photos Fuel Foreign Policy Failures

by Laura Snedeker

Just as the United States' relationships with North Korea and Syria were improving, the Bush administration came in and dashed the hopes of peace negotiators.

Last week, the administration released photographs supposedly taken inside a nuclear reactor in Syria that an Israeli airstrike destroyed in September. Among other things, the photographs supposedly provide evidence for the administration’s claim that North Korea is supplying Syria with nuclear weapons technology and expertise.

The Bush administration claims that it held onto the photographs to prevent Syria from launching retaliatory strikes against Israel and sparking a wider war in the Middle East. Yet officials chose to release the photographs amid the specter of peace negotiations between the two countries. Turkey’s prime minister told reporters that he hoped to bring officials from both sides to the table, and both Syrian and Israeli officials expressed interest in direct talks in the future.

The administration consistently undermines its own and others’ efforts to bring about peace in the Middle East. President George W. Bush invited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the White House last week ahead of a planned trip to the region, while chastising former President Jimmy Carter for visiting Syria to talk with the leaders of Hamas, the Palestinian party in control of the Gaza Strip. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that the State Department warned Carter that his trip would cause confusion because the Bush administration has refused to deal with Hamas, calling them a terrorist group.

The release of the photographs also comes at the same time as improved negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea. Top negotiator Christopher Hill said last week that there had been “very extensive” discussions that focused on North Korea’s failure to declare its nuclear weapons programs and to report on the transfer of nuclear technology to other countries. The State Department has agreed to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in exchange for meeting those conditions.

We will probably never know what was in the Syrian military facility or whether North Korean scientists were involved. The Syrian government cleared the area after the Israeli airstrike and built a new building in the exact same location. None of the parties involved are trustworthy when it comes to issues surrounding nuclear weapons. But most disturbing is the Bush administration’s familiar tactic of twisting the facts to suit the policies, which they used with great skill in making the case against Iraq. Senior intelligence officials privately said they had “low confidence” in Syria’s ability to build nuclear weapons, and reports that some of the pictures were taken before 2002 cast further doubt on the validity of the argument.

The media are responsible for questioning the Bush administration’s motives even if Congress fails to do so, but so far they have shied away from making any comparisons with the case against Iraq, from the pictures of alleged reactor sites to dubious or outdated intelligence. The media should be asking what the administration gains from releasing the photographs. The negative consequences of angering North Korea and intensifying the tensions between Israel and Syria outweigh by far the benefits of getting either country to own up to its nuclear ambitions. Even if the allegations are true, there is little that aggressive posturing and propagandizing can accomplish.

The chances of America going to war with Syria are small, but maintaining enough fear among Americans to persuade them to agree to curtailing their civil liberties and continuing to fight the so-called “War on Terror” requires the creation of new threats. Whether this administration and its ideological supporters are successful is a measure not only of their determination to shape the world, but of the willingness of the American public and the media to go along with them.

(The photo is one of those released by the CIA to Congress. The photo shows what the CIA has called a reactor building. The photo is a still from a CIA video and is in the public domain. To see the full CIA video, please go here.)












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4.27.2008

Dragging Christian Little League to Court

by Suzie Raven

When I was seven, I couldn’t care less about the name of my softball league, or its affiliation with Little League International. I was far too busy doing cartwheels in right field. My coaches (and my parents) didn’t care either. They were also too busy – making sure I didn’t get hit in the head with a fly ball.

Jay Kaplan of Pompano Beach, Florida cares. Little League International is suing the founder of what is called “Christian Little League” for trademark infringement. Little League's counsel sent Kaplan a cease and desist order last month, and then filed suit earlier this month. Little League owns the rights to many combinations of those two words, including “Little League,” “Little League Baseball” and even “Little Leaguer.”

Kaplan won’t back down.

"God is the ultimate judge and has the final say," he said. "The words little and league do not belong to your client, they belong to God and the people."

Let’s take religion out of the equation. I believe in a separation of church and baseball as much as I believe in the separation of church and state. I still think Little League needs to get off of its high horse. It’s not like putting the words “little” and “league” together was a stroke of creative genius. Maybe whoever coined the phrase “grilled cheese” should copyright that.

Let the kids play ball. Let Jay Kaplan focus on convincing first graders to stop doing cartwheels in right field.

(The photo shows an official Little League game in Florida, not a Christian Little League contest. The photo is by kthypryn via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License.)








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4.26.2008

iVoryTowerz Radio: The Spirit of Grunge

Spirits float in the ether alongside the signal of the underground podcast this week. Time to give our respects to the dearly departed. So there's a special tribute this week to the recently departed Danny Federici of the E St. Band, not to mention the patron saint of grunge, Kurt Cobain. By tracing some of Cobain's influences, this podcast also gives a succinct history of grunge. But other sounds find their way into the mix too from blues to punk to heavy metal, and we cover about 30 years of rock in the process. So, turn this up to 11 and get in the spirit of these rock 'n roll proceedings!


(To download or stream this podcast, click here.)


Playlist

"Slabo Day" by Peter Green
Cover Me: "Folsom Prison Blues" by Keb Mo
“Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” by Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
“The Older We Get" by Hothouse Flowers
"City of Angels" by Strange Rebel Frequency
"Said So What" by French Kicks
"Is This It?" by The Strokes
“Hollywood” by Collective Soul
"Tipping the Lion" by The Melvins
"About a Girl” by Nirvana
“Father Figure" by Army of Anyone
"Meatplow" by Stone Temple Pilots
"Heartshine" by Mother Love Bone
"Would?" by Alice in Chains
Rick's Metal Shoppe: "Embedded" by Job for a Cowboy
Jeff’s New Wave: “God Save the Queen” by The Sex Pistols

(Mp3 Runs - 1:27:39; 81 MB.)

(Digital painting by medium_as_message of San Francisco via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License.)




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4.25.2008

The NBA Playoffs: Home Court & Holding Serve

by Hayden Alfano*
Special to iVoryTowerz

Overheard in the hours before Game 3 of the National Basketball Association (NBA) playoff series between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Washington Wizards: “Game 3 is the wake. Game 4 is the funeral.”

The author of that quote was intimating that he thought the Wizards, down two games to none in a best-of-seven series, had very little chance of coming back. His point may have had more to do with the Wizards’ terrible performance in their Game 2 loss than the mere fact that they faced a two-game deficit, but either way, they went out and proved him wrong, pasting Cleveland 108-72. At the same time, the Toronto Raptors were reviving their postseason hopes, defeating the Orlando Magic 108-94 to cut their series deficit to 2-1.

“But wait!” you say. “It’s really hard for a team to come back from a 2-0 deficit.” And the statistics seem to back that up: Coming into this postsesason, 26 teams had fallen behind 2-0 in the opening round of the NBA playoffs since the league switched to a seven-game series’ in 2003. Only three had gone on to win the series.

The fate of teams who fall behind 2-0 was and is of particular concern this year, because in the eight opening round playoff series, only Detroit and Philadelphia split the first two games. The other seven series seemed all but decided to many observers. But there’s reason to believe that Washington and Toronto weren’t just delaying the inevitable Thursday night, no matter what the stats say.

To understand why, it’s important to understand two things about how the NBA playoffs are structured:

1) The qualifying teams in each conference are seeded 1 through 8 based on regular-season record, and matched up so that the team with the best record plays the team with the worst record, the second-best record plays the second-worst record, and so on;

2) The team with the better record hosts games 1, 2, 5, and 7, meaning they get four home games to their opponents’ three. This is what is known as “home court advantage.”

Of those 26 teams that took 2-0 first-round leads from 2003 to 2007, all but one of them – the 2005 Houston Rockets – were the better-seeded team. (Ironically, those Rockets were one of the three teams to blow a 2-0 series lead.) In other words, using the admittedly imperfect metric of regular season record, all but one of the teams that won the first two games of a first-round playoff series was better than their opponent. So it’s not terribly surprising that the vast majority of them went on to win.

With that in mind, then, the picture doesn’t really look much bleaker for six of the seven teams that trailed after two games than it did for them at the beginning of the playoffs (Houston, despite a dramatic 94-92 win late Thursday night over the Utah Jazz, is the exception, as the team dropped its first two games of that series at home). A team heading into a seven-game playoff series without the homecourt advantage has a goal that is simple, but hard to attain: Hold serve by winning all three games at home, and steal one victory on the road. All that has happened for these teams is that they’ve lost half their opportunities to win that crucial road game. It hurts their chances some, but not enough to completely write them off. If you thought before the playoffs that Washington and Toronto – and the Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, and Atlanta Hawks – had the ability to win their first-round series, there’s little reason to change that opinion now.

(Television Viewing Advisory: The NBA playoffs resume tonight, Friday, April 25, with three games. Detroit and Philadelphia get things started at 7 p.m. EDT on ESPN2; New Orleans and Dallas tip off at 8 p.m. EDT on ESPN; and Phoenix and San Antonio follow that one on ESPN, getting started at approximately 10:30 p.m. EDT.)

*Hayden Alfano is the author of the blog 19'9" which is mostly about college basketball.







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Farewell to a Founder

Today, we say farewell to one of this blog's founding writers, Caitlin Servilio.

Caitlin proved to be a writer with elegant phrasing who lived to experience the D.C. music scene, and often we were honored with her descriptions of what she found.

Although often more interested in the artistic foundations of writing, music, and art, Caitlin also proved to have natural journalistic instincts. When she picked up the phone to call the founder of Pandora, Tim Westergren, her short series on the music service was the result. It is still her most popular posting on this blog, and set a tone early on for the entire staff.

Caitlin has focused on a variety of other projects in 2008, so we haven't seen her prose around these parts for too long. But for those who haven't sampled her writing, here are a few of her better pieces:

Good luck Caitlin in your other pursuits!

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4.24.2008

Album Review: Flight of the Conchords

by Justin Wilder
Special to iVoryTowerz

With a second season of their HBO show on the way, New Zealand's Flight of the Conchords have released their first LP through Sub Pop Records. (The comedy duo won a Grammy for best comedy album this year for their EP The Distant Future, also on Sub Pop.) As a big fan of the show, I was excited about this new album, hoping to be blown away by the creative genius of band members Brett McKenzie and Jermaine Clement. (For a different view of the duo's television series, please see, "TV Review: Flight of the Conchords.") This eponymous album, however, is just an average record. But an average record for the Conchords is still much better than most.

All of the material is funny and there is plenty of genre variation between the songs. Some of the album highlights include: the Stevie Wonder-inspired "Think About It" (Note the lyrics: "Man is lying on the street / Some punks chopped off his head/I'm the only one who stops, to see if he's dead...turns out he's dead"); the classic funk grooves of "Business Time" which has been quoted repeatedly on ESPN's SportsCenter; and the faux-balladry of "A Kiss Is Not a Contract" (That song includes this hilarious line: "Just because I'm in a two man novelty band doesn't mean it's all about poontang").

The biggest problem with the disc is that the songs lack the comedic setups that the HBO show provides. On their own, some of tracks don't make as much sense, as some references get lost and the videos that the Conchords create for the songs are part of the fun of watching the show. There is only one new song included on this release and it is only twenty-two seconds long. Apparently, Sub Pop was content with allowing the duo to release a disc of older material. Not that this is a problem but you could just go out and buy Flight of the Conchords: Season One on DVD and get all of the same tracks PLUS the added bonus of being able to laugh at the antics of these hilariously awkward kiwis.

(Promotional photo of Flight of the Conchords from Sub Pop Records. Flight of the Conchords will make an in-store appearance and perform at Amoeba Music in Hollywood, CA, today, April 24, in advance of the duo's U.S. tour which begins in May. To see Flight of the Conchords perform "Business Time," please check below.)









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4.23.2008

Hillary Clinton, the Pennsylvania Primary & the Increasing Irrelevance of the Democratic Party

by Jeff Siegel

That sound you hear is John McCain's campaign operatives having a giggle. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), in winning Tuesday's Democratic presidential primary in Pennsylvania, did to Barack Obama what Sen. McCain (R-AZ) will do to the Democratic nominee in November.

Regular visitors to this space know how I feel about the Democrats, who have sold their birthright for campaign cash. Clinton's 10-point victory, and the Bushian strategy she used to get it, removes any doubts. We no longer have two parties in the U.S.; rather, we have conservative Republicans and moderate Republicans.

The difference between the two is mostly style, for each believes in the same things: The superiority of the American political, cultural and business elite; the primacy of the free market to benefit the American political, cultural and business elite; and a limited, extremely defined role for the federal government, so as not to upset the privileges of the American political, cultural and business elite. The Democratic Party, which once worked to help minorities and working men and women through the New Deal, the 1960s civil rights reforms, and a host of other measures, now sees this constituency as a group to be manipulated to retain its privileges.

Mrs. Clinton beat Sen. Obama (D-IL) by emphasizing her experience, her moderation, and her national security credentials. There is, ironically, some truth to her moderation, for she has continually moved her politics to the right. There has not been a Democratic presidential candidate since the Depression who would have acquiesced in the government-assisted bailout of the Bear Stearns investment bank, but Mrs. Clinton did.

Her national security credentials are minimal, but it didn't stop her from saying this: "I want the Iranians to know that if I’m the president, we will attack Iran,” she said. “In the next ten years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them." This would be funny if it wasn't so pathetic.

Her husband, meanwhile, continues to demonstrate that he has no morals or scruples at all. The former president is Karl Rove to his wife's Bush. Most recently, Mr. Clinton questioned Obama's patriotism, but he has also made asides about Obama's fitness for office and the role of race in the campaign — all the while denying he said anything about any of that.

Obama is not blameless, either. He had an opportunity to redeem himself in Pennsylvania by capitalizing on his "bitter voters" remark. (And it's absolutely Orwellian that an elite like Mrs. Clinton, with her upper middle class suburban upbringing and her Seven Sisters education, would pounce on this and claim it showed that Obama wasn't a man of the people.)

Instead, he crawfished, much as he has done throughout the campaign when faced with a controversy. Of course, voters are bitter. They're losing their homes and their jobs and they can't afford to buy groceries or gas for their car. This was Obama's chance to prove he stood for something other than his idea of change, whatever that is. He should have said that he felt their pain, that he understood their bitterness. He should have said that the federal government has a role to play in fixing these problems, and that it must do more than bail out rich people. But he didn't, and so he got clobbered.

This victory doesn't necessarily move Clinton closer to the nomination. It just prolongs the campaign. But this probably doesn't matter. Yes, it's early, but regardless of the party's nominee, it's becoming clearer we will see a conservative Republican in the White House in November, which means the prolongation and expansion of the Iraq War and continuing economic calamity as the federal government is used to benefit the wealthy at the expense of working men and women.

If voters can vote for John McCain or a Democrat acting like John McCain, who do you think they'll vote for?

For more background on the 2008 campaign, please see these archival posts:

(The photo of Sen. Hillary Clinton campaigning in Seattle, WA in February is by soggydan of Seattle via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License.)












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4.22.2008

Music Review: Tokyo Police Club's Elephant Shell

by Vincent Lee

Elephant Shell is the debut album of the Canadian quartet Tokyo Police Club. The band has gained a significant following from their energy-filled live shows. This album is sure to win them more. (The group has also released two short EPs.) Though it is a short album, only eleven songs for a total of twenty eight minutes, it packs quite a punch and shows a great amount of potential from the young band.

Throughout the eleven songs only one ("Your English is Good") breaks the three minute mark. The rest float around two minutes in length. The brevity of these songs is not a detriment. Each song is extremely catchy and likeable. Many lyrical lines from Tokyo Police Club (TPC) contain more depth than one might believe or understand for that matter. Littered throughout Elephant Shell are interesting lines that make one pause amongst the indie pop jams. The energy that comes out of each song on TPC's debut shows signs of great potential.

Oddly enough, the aforementioned energy and signs of potential are perhaps the only true flaws of the album. Only so much energy can be showcased on a studio album. For a large part of Elephant Shell, TPC seems trapped in the studio. There is energy, but so much more could be unleashed in a live performance. Similarly, at times, the great potential TPC shows seems trapped in such short formats: like any good band, they leave you wanting more. These flaws do not make the album bad, but hinder it to a degree.

However, for a debut album, Elephant Shell is something special. It is both consistent and enjoyable. The album should reach a broad range of listeners. Though Tokyo Police Club does not do anything extremely unique or groundbreaking, the band finds a way to be appealing without irritating repetition. A very good first album, Elephant Shell is hopefully a sign of more things to come.

(Promotional photo of Tokyo Police Club from Saddle Creek Records. The band will play New York City tonight, April 22, as part of its world tour. To sample the band's video for "Tessellate" from Elephant Shell, please check below.)








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4.21.2008

Barack Obama: Pennsylvania Reveals the Frontrunner’s Flaws

by Rick Rockwell*

Hoping to win votes, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) has told us: “Truthfulness during campaigns makes a difference.”

But how does Obama deal with the truth?

ABC News ambushed the Democratic front-runner last week during a debate for presidential candidates in Philadelphia. And rightly, ABC has faced criticism from media critics and political pundits for its performance. ABC’s problems revolved around tone and appearance. Debate moderator Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, who aided in the questioning, were not even handed. Although Gibson and Stephanopoulos asked tough questions of both Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), most of the pointed questions were directed at Obama, as noted in this blog’s criticism of that debate. This blog first criticized Stephanopoulos back in January for acting almost as a surrogate for the Clinton campaign, but it took the biggest debate stage yet of this political season to expose those political leanings to a wider audience. ABC should retire Stephanopoulos from any journalistic role with the campaign, or change his title merely to pro-Clinton pundit.

But in ABC’s defense, those questions needed to be asked of Obama. Yes, tougher questions should have been asked of Clinton too, but if Obama cannot deal with this barrage, how will he hold up in the campaign to come against the Republicans?

And the problem is that Obama is not leveling with the public.

If Obama’s church and pastor voice leftwing criticism of U.S. foreign policy, including moral support for Hamas, then Obama needs to explain rationally why that makes sense to his political base, instead of getting defensive or disassembling about how he was unaware. Could it be that Obama is farther to the left in his home community than he is on the national stage, or than what he is willing to say in a speech or debate?

Obama has apologized for criticizing Clinton’s base of rural Pennsylvania voters as “bitter” and clinging to religion and guns in the face of crisis. Obama’s remarks came before a group in San Francisco. And he was called elitist for making those remarks. But isn’t this the typical politician shaping his message for the crowd at hand? In this case, isn’t this Obama saying it’s those Reagan Democrats supporting Clinton, not the real core of the party?

Obama is as slick as either of the Clintons when it comes to shaping his message for the moment. When Sen. Clinton attempted to hang slumlord Antoin "Tony" Rezko around Obama’s neck during a debate in South Carolina, Obama responded by telling us that he had only spent “five hours” reviewing a legal case involving Rezko. However, a trial under way in Chicago reveals a much deeper connection between Rezko and Obama. That trial is not getting the same national coverage as the candidate debates though. And Obama’s retort to Clinton when those charges were made was to say the truth matters, as if she was the only one who lies to get ahead (see her Tuzla whopper) in politics.

So as Pennsylvania goes to the polls tomorrow (April 22) there’s more spin and political fog for the average voter to navigate. The drumbeat from Obama’s surrogates in the past five weeks has been that Clinton must win in all three of the next states in the primary season, or she should bow out. Those three states are Pennsylvania, Indiana, and North Carolina. Certainly, Obama has thrown a lot of money from his campaign war chest into Pennsylvania to blunt what looks like another Clinton win in the making. Another part of the expectation game: Obama’s surrogates are telling the media if Clinton doesn’t win in Pennsylvania by eight or ten percentage points then it shows she is too weak to catch up. This is all spin designed to quash any momentum that the Clinton campaign has built up as more questions arise about a politician that few voters outside of Chicago really know.

More questions need to be asked of Obama, not less. And if he’s uncomfortable with the role of frontrunner, that in itself is very revealing.

*Rick Rockwell is a former producer for ABC News.

For more background on the 2008 campaign, please see these archival posts:

(The political graphic is from the First Friday Collective.)











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4.20.2008

The Iraq War: Walls are Not the Answer

by Laura Snedeker

When all else fails, build a wall. Unable to claim a military victory or public relations victory over the militant Shi’ite Mahdi Army in Iraq, this week, U.S. forces began the construction of a wall dividing the Shi’ite neighborhood of Sadr City in two.

The wall, which is twelve feet high in some places, separates the insurgent-controlled northern section of the city from the southern section in order to protect the Green Zone. The Green Zone, which houses the U.S. embassy and is the headquarters for the Iraqi government, has come under heavy fire since the followers of radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr clashed with American and Iraqi forces earlier this month.

The military’s last-ditch attempt to reduce the violence in Iraq is indicative of the deteriorating situation. In the face of mass desertions by Iraqi Army troops and wavering support in the United States for the war, the military has undertaken an effective, but unpopular method of control. Although walls in other Baghdad neighborhoods successfully reduced violence against U.S. troops, many Iraqis complain of difficulties in moving though checkpoints.

More importantly, the construction of a barrier through the middle of an Iraqi city is reminiscent of the actions of other occupying powers and is a distinctly unwelcome sight in the Arab world. Probably the most well-known modern example, the Berlin Wall, divided a city in two and clearly distinguished between those who were free and those who were not.

The barrier separating the West Bank in the Palestinian territories from Israel has been a flash point for violence in the Middle East since the Israeli government began construction in 2002. The Israeli government claims the wall is necessary for protecting Israeli civilians from Palestinian suicide bombers and snipers, but many Palestinians complain they have been cut off from their land and frequently encounter problems at Israeli checkpoints.

The comparison is close enough. For the U.S. to undertake a similar project indicates a profound ignorance of sentiments in the Middle East. The Israeli barrier and U.S. support for Israel are among Muslims’ top grievances against the West, grievances that al-Qaeda has successfully exploited for its own agenda at the expense of moderates.

Coincidentally, another symbol of the lasting presence of the U.S. in the Middle East was completed last week. The State Department approved the new U.S. embassy in Baghdad, a sprawling 104-acre compound that cost the U.S. government more than $730 million. It is the largest and most expensive embassy in the world (and a frequent target of rocket fire from insurgents), the perfect example of imperial excess in the midst of chaos.

The embassy is yet another barrier between American policy in Iraq and the civilians whose lives it affects. In contrast to the poor progress in the reconstruction of Iraq’s infrastructure, the fortified, self-sufficient “city within a city” looks more like America’s last refuge than a force for stability; its occupants more colonial administrators than diplomats.

Rather than try to see the conflict from the perspective of Iraqi civilians or insurgents, those in charge of the war have separated themselves physically and psychologically from the situation. The wall in Sadr City is a monument to America’s desperation and poor understanding of the Middle East, the embassy a symbol of America’s stubborn insistence on ruling an uncooperative country. American policymakers cannot deny the facts forever, but if the past five years are any indication they can hold out a long time.

(The photo shows U.S. troops deployed in Sadr City. Department of Defense photo by Cpl. John Wright, U.S. Army; the photo is in the public domain.)






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4.19.2008

Baseball, Lo Duca & Steroids

by Suzie Raven
As Suzie Raven, an average citizen, I could face up to a year in prison or a $1,000 fine for possessing anabolic steroids without a prescription. As the catcher for the Washington Nationals, Paul Lo Duca faces community service and booing from the fans of his former team, the New York Mets.

Baseball's Commissioner Bud Selig constantly promises to dole out harsher punishments to players found guilty of steroid use. Earlier this month, the owners and players agreed to increased drug testing all year round. It’s the same story and the same hot air he’s been blowing ever since Lo Duca’s name was dropped all over the Mitchell Report (about steroid abuse in Major League Baseball) last December. Selig isn’t advertising a plan for punishing any players who test positive in the future, and he remains entirely unconcerned with those who have been caught in the past.

"It is time for the game to move forward," Selig said. "There is little to be gained at this point in debating dated misconduct and enduring numerous disciplinary proceedings."

Call me crazy, but this hardly sounds like someone who is cracking down.

There is Lo Duca’s community service, which will involve going to various schools to tell children why they shouldn’t do drugs. This begs the question: What will he say to the kids?

Perhaps his speech could go something like this: "Hi, I’m Paul Lo Duca and I’m here to tell you not to do drugs. Just look at my life. Everyone, including the U.S. Senate, knows I did drugs, and nothing bad happened to me. I didn’t go to jail, I didn’t lose my job – mostly, I just continued with life as usual. Yeah, the Philadelphia Phillies fans booed me, but they booed Santa Claus.”

Ah yes, I see how this helps the War on Drugs.

This isn’t even a slap on the wrist. Most of my childhood heroes played for the 1993 Phillies, but I never thought they should be immune from the realities the rest of us face. Yes, Lo Duca is a good ballplayer. I’m good at things too, but that doesn’t make me above the law. He shouldn’t be either.

(For more background on this issue, please see: "Baseball Controversy: Steroids, Canseco & A-Rod;" and "Barry Bonds and the Inevitable.")

(The photo of a vial of anabolic steroids is from the Drug Enforcement Administration — DEA — and is in the public domain.)








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4.18.2008

The NBA Playoffs: Must-See TV

by Hayden Alfano*
Special to iVoryTowerz

The cable network TNT’s slogan for its National Basketball Association (NBA) playoff coverage is “40 Games in 40 Nights.” Casual observers and even diehard basketball fans criticize the league for stretching the postseason out over two months, but this year, consider the playoffs “must-see TV.”

Three themes define the 2007-2008 regular season, one of the best in NBA history:

A four-headed Most Valuable Player race. Los Angeles’ Kobe Bryant, Cleveland’s LeBron James, New Orleans’ Chris Paul, and Boston’s Kevin Garnett have been making their cases on the hardwood all season long. Everyone has an opinion as to who is most deserving, but no one’s going to argue that the eventual winner didn’t earn it.

An ultra-competitive Western Conference. The NBA is divided into two conferences, East and West, and eight teams from each conference make the playoffs. That means the Golden State Warriors – a team that last year became the first eight-seed to beat a one-seed in a seven-game series – are on the outside looking in this postseason, despite a 48-34 record. That’s the most wins for a team that missed the playoffs since the league expanded the field to 16 teams in 1984. (For comparison’s sake, Atlanta, the eight-seed in the Eastern Conference, finished with a 37-45 record).

All eight Western playoff teams won at least 50 games, and the first six seeds weren’t decided until the final day of the season. Los Angeles edged New Orleans for the top seed, and was rewarded handsomely. Not only do the Lakers have home-court advantage throughout the conference playoffs, they have comparatively unproven opponents in the first (Denver) and second (either Houston or Utah) rounds. The Hornets must find their way past Dallas (winners of 67 games a year ago) in the first round, and if they pass that test, the defending champs, the San Antonio Spurs, potentially await them in the second round.

Unprecedented movement of star players before and during the season. Boston started this party in the offseason by trading for Seattle’s Ray Allen on draft night, then adding Garnett. Along with Celtics mainstay Paul Pierce, Garnett and Allen led the team to wins in 29 of the team's first 32 games, engineering the single largest year-over-year improvement in NBA history. The Celtics convinced the rest of the league that if a team wanted a shot at the title, it needed to get better.

-Los Angeles was the first to respond. In desperate need of a center after young breakout star Andrew Bynum went down with a knee injury, the Lakers somehow convinced Memphis to give them Pau Gasol for far less than market value. Bynum won’t be back until the second round, if at all. If he does come back, one hiccup might be re-assimilating him into an offense that now already has a low-post scoring threat.

-LA’s addition of Gasol sparked Phoenix to ship athletic forward Shawn Marion to Miami in exchange for iconic center Shaquille O’Neal, despite Shaq’s ongoing health problems and a concern that he wouldn’t fit in with the Suns’ uptempo offense. O’Neal’s numbers with Phoenix aren’t spectactular (12.9 points and 9.9 rebounds per game in 28 games), but his presence has freed up Amare Stoudemire to dominate smaller defenders. Stoudemire has averaged nearly 29 points per game playing alongside Shaq, nearly four points better than his season average.

-Dallas got in on the action late, trading a group that included promising young point guard Devin Harris and backup center DeSagana Diop to New Jersey for veteran Jason Kidd. This trade hasn’t worked out as well as the others; the Mavericks, 35-18 before Kidd arrived, went just 16-13 down the stretch, including a 3-9 mark against Western playoff teams.

Other franchises made smaller moves; Cleveland added four players, highlighted by Ben Wallace; Utah addressed its only real weakness, three-point shooting, by nabbing Philadelphia’s Kyle Korver; San Antonio got bigger by getting veteran Kurt Thomas from Seattle; New Orleans and Houston swapped role players; and Atlanta filled a big need by snagging point guard Mike Bibby from Sacramento. But no season immediately comes to mind as one that had more significant player movement than this.

All that trading means that there will be better teams on the hardwood for the next two months than is typical. Don’t be surprised the team that wins the rings looks a lot different than it did last year – or even two months ago.

Championship Prediction: Boston over Los Angeles (in seven games).

Editor's Note: The NBA playoffs start Saturday, April 19, with four games. The tip-off of the contest between the Washington Wizards and the Cleveland Cavaliers begins the action at 12:30 p.m. EDT.

*Hayden Alfano is the author of the blog 19'9" which is mostly about college basketball.











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iVoryTowerz Radio: Nu & Neo

(Editor's Note: This podcast and posting were removed, under some protest, due to a copyright dispute. This posting has been recreated as best as possible and is not the original. The posting has been returned here for archival purposes.)

What's the distance between nu metal and neo-soul? Not as far as you might think, and this edition of the underground podcast travels that ground in just over an hour, with plenty of stops in between. As usual, this program reaches into the vault: this time to cover more than 50 years of soul, blues, new wave, plus a heavy dose of new music. There's plenty of passionate music here, so please enjoy!


(This podcast has been removed and is no longer available in any form.)


Playlist

"Split, Part II" by The Groundhogs
Rick's Metal Shoppe: “Don't Fake It” by P.O.D.
"What I've Done" by Linkin Park
“Spin the Black Circle" by Pearl Jam
"Why Do Men Fight?" by Carbon/Silicon
Jeff’s New Wave: “Mercury Poisoning” by Graham Parker
"We Ask You to Ride" by Wooden Shjips
"Running on Empty" by Jackson Browne
“Dead End Road” by J.J. Cale & Eric Clapton

“Eaglebird” by North Mississippi Allstars
“Swampblood” by The Legendary Shack-Shakers
"Don't Want No Man" by Marcia Ball
Cover Me: "A Change is Gonna Come" by Tina Turner
"All Around the World" by Little Willie John
"Total Destruction to your Mind" by Swamp Dogg
"Soul Food" by Leela James


(Mp3 Runs - 1:23:12; 77 MB.)

(The photo is by Daniel Leininger of St. Louis, MO via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)


Originally podcast as iVoryTowerz No. 60.




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